Putting Principles in Practice

Principles are values-based guides for navigating complexity and calibrating our strategy. In this post in our series on Principles-Focused Evaluation, we look at the very heart of what it means to take a principled approach to our work.

A look at the words we associate with principle, and you’ll find many associated with strategy, evaluation, and guidelines. It’s fitting and perhaps strange that it has only been recently that principles have received much consideration in the evaluation literature. For that, we must thank Michael Quinn Patton, who first popularized and fully articulated the idea of Principles-Focused Evaluation.

A principle is defined as:

prin·ci·ple /ˈprinsəpəl/ noun – a basic generalization that is accepted as true and that can be used as a basis for reasoning or conduct. / an idea or conclusion having general application / a fundamental principle or practice.

The central concept behind PFE is using principles — guiding value statements backed by policies and practices — as a reference point for supporting and driving strategy. Many organizations have stood by their values as barometers to guide strategy.

For example, outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia has made being a values-driven organization part of its brand. However, even one as well known as Patagonia has struggled to live up to the values it espouses and use them to drive strategy. What PFE adds is an evaluative element to values and ensures that values are not only reflected in practice, but that they support and guide decisions about what to do next.

Much like Developmental Evaluation before it, PFE has been practiced long before it was articulated. What PFE does is make the use of principles and their relationship to strategy and outcomes, outputs, and impact explicit.

Why Principles?

Principles are foundational guides to help us make decisions in the face of changing conditions, uncertainty, and incomplete information. In a nutshell, a principle is a values-based strategy tool.

By values, we refer to things that you value.

Values can be complicated. There is a level of specificity that’s needed to frame a good principle. For example, words like “diversity,” “high performance,” or “excellence” are not useful on their own. Principles require a level of specificity so they can be tested in practice.

Michael Quinn Patton, who introduced PFE and has developed the foundational work on the method and practice, uses the GUIDE Framework to specify the criteria for a strong, actionable principle.

From Patton, Michael. (2018) Principles-Focused Evaluation: The GUIDE. The Guilford Press.

According to Patton, a high-quality principle does the following: (1) provides Guidance, (2) is Useful, (3) Inspires, (4) supports ongoing Development and adaptation, and (5) is Evaluable. We’ll look at this GUIDE further below.

Value and Principles

Principles frame our choices about what to do and clarify and illuminate what has value. A PFE recognizes that both 1) what to do and 2) what value looks like is open to change along with the circumstances.

To illustrate, consider how something developed for one situation might be seen as useful, effective, and create enormous value only to lose utility, effectiveness, and value as a situation changes. Imagine — in real time — what’s happening on Lake Mead in Nevada. This artificially created lake once hosted a vibrant boating and resort culture. Watercraft, docks, and resorts had high value here, provided benefits, and had a purpose for recreation, economic activity, and as a water reservoir.

Now, with the lake drying up, these valued things can no longer function as they did (or at all). As the water levels change, the things that the water brought or enabled have changed. Value is now different — it’s developed from its original form.

Taking a principled approach to understanding something means creating guides that can help us manage the kind of change this example describes. We might make this change in social, organizational, community or environmental terms, but we do it guided by our values.

Articulating Values

The GUIDE Framework tells us what a good principle looks like but not how to make one. Developing principles requires more than a guide; it requires much reflective work. No one can tell you what your values are or what you value.

Articulating these involves asking some of these questions:

  1. What has meaning for me*? Meaning is what has significance and commands respect and attention from your organization.
  2. What do I pay attention to? Tools like Attractor Mapping can help identify where your focus within a system lies.
  3. What do I wish to accomplish? This is about goals and setting ones that are meaningful and connect to what you pay attention to.
  4. What am I prepared to do? Goals cannot be wishes; they must be backed with a commitment to achieve them**

*This could refer to an individual, group, or organization.

**You may not achieve your goals, but this can’t be for lack of trying.

This process of developing principles will force you to confront your beliefs, practices, and identity. Patagonia had to confront organizational practices that conflict with its values. It has also had to grapple with the challenges associated with building a product that, while durable and made with values in place, nevertheless conflicts with its values of planetary health.

Patagonia is willing to undertake the work to explore and live with this tension in its operations. This is values-based leadership.

Where PFE can come in is helping articulate how these values can transform into guides for strategy, action, and accountability. A PFE provides leaders with a means of showing value to others.

Developing Principles

Using Patton’s GUIDE Framework, we can begin to translate our values into principles.

1. Let’s start with a guide. A guide will offer us clear choices for action in the face of uncertainty. A guiding principle helps us to recognize situations and take action when an obvious path isn’t clear. Guiding principles help us to deal with complexity.

2. Our guides need to be useful (practical). A principle cannot guide us in a direction we cannot go. That’s not to suggest we won’t need to undergo some kind of sensemaking process to determine how to put a principle into practice. However, we have to be able to follow the guidance a principle offers.

3. A practical principle can also be inspiring. Inspiration is at the heart of good design — we design well when we encourage new thinking and action. It’s disheartening when we can’t implement ideas or act on our values. Inspiration is key to maintaining motivation and psychological momentum in the face of obstacles.

4. Obstacles might also mean we need to consider adapting our strategy and maybe our principles, too. I can still allow my principles to bend to context without losing their integrity. Accordingly, our principles must be fit-for-purpose and open to developmental change. A developmental mindset recognizes that what works in one context might not fit another, and our principles must reflect that.

5. Lastly, our principles must be open to evaluation. That openness and the means we use to assess our principles in action will be the focus of the next article in this series. Once we know that, we are ready to use PFE.

Principles to Actions

Developing and using principles in action is rewarding but remarkably challenging. I have worked with many organizations that struggle with articulating their values. Consequently, I find much misalignment in what people say they want and how they design their organizations to achieve what they want.

So how do we do better? We will look at the interconnections between design, principles, and evaluation in future posts.

If you’re interested in using Principles-Focused Evaluation or want help in articulating your values, value proposition, and strategy, let’s talk. I can help — that’s what I do.

Image Credits: Marc Thunis on Unsplash and Juan Pablo Mascanfroni on Unsplash. Thanks for sharing your art with the world, Marc and Juan Pablo.

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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